The Water Quality Association (WQA) pulled off its first-ever Virtual Mid-Year Leadership Conference Sept. 13-14 after Hurricane Florence forced the group to drop plans to meet in South Carolina.
As Florence barreled down on the Carolinas, the WQA converted its face-to-face conference, planned to take place in Hilton Head, S.C., into a digital event. WQA is a not-for-profit trade association representing the residential, commercial, and industrial water treatment industry.
During the digital event, water quality professionals were able to watch presentations and training sessions, as well as take part in board, committee, task force, and section meetings on their laptops.
All 20 sessions of the conference were broadcast from four conference rooms at WQA’s headquarters in Lisle, Illinois. Several speakers for the industry update session presented from various cities around the country.
“Clearly, we weren’t going to be able to get together in person this year, but we refused to let that mean members had to miss out on all the valuable information shared and industry progress conducted at the leadership conference,” WQA Executive Director Pauli Undesser said in a press release.
While WQA still was crunching numbers Sept. 17, spokesman Wesley Bleed told Convene the organization was happy with the turnout for the online event.
“We’re thrilled, frankly,” said Bleed, director of marketing and communications. He added that about 90 members tuned in to the industry update session Sept. 14.
LyNae Schleyer, WQA’s meeting services director, told Convene last week that four sessions were opened to all members — even those who hadn’t registered for the Hilton Head meeting. She also was happy with member response.
“Attendance today, especially for our [membership-wide] virtual meetings, was very strong,” Schleyer said Sept. 13, after the first day of the conference. “We’ve had very positive participation.”
At the time WQA officials made the decision to go digital, Florence had surged to a Category 4 hurricane and was expected to hit both North and South Carolina with deadly winds, storm surges, and rain.
On Sept. 8, the organization already had emailed registered attendees that the situation was being evaluated. With about 150 WQA members and staff members expected to attend the conference in Hilton Head, the WQA’s crisis management team decided the morning of Sept. 9 to change its plans.
WQA then alerted registered attendees that the conference was canceled but to “save the date” for a possible virtual meeting. Later that day, WQA emailed registered members again with more information pulled from a FAQ sheet on its website that included details on canceling flights and hotel reservations as well as the impact of the cancellation on WQA.
The hard work really began once WQA had decided they could make the virtual meeting happen, Schleyer told Convene. “It was an easy decision [to make the conference virtual], but that required our full team Monday morning to make it happen,” she said.
By the afternoon of Sept. 10, another email was sent explaining that the virtual event would take place. The email included a complete schedule of the sessions and how members could participate, Bleed said.
The association’s IT department “was integral in the success of this project,” Schleyer said. That department worked with other teams to set up all the meetings in the GoToMeeting platform and prepared the four conference rooms to host sessions on a rotating schedule. Bleed replaced the landing page for the Hilton Head event with one explaining everything about the virtual conference. WQA also began informing other members through its social-media channels and on its website.
“Every day we had a check-in meeting and every department was involved in the conversations,” Schleyer said. “We had rehearsals — it was a real team effort.”
The organization is taking what it has learned about creating a digital event to do more in the future — hopefully with more time to plan. “This was a big lift in a short amount of time, but we’re really going to be using this as an experiment,” she said. “It’s really a training ground for us.”
While Hilton Head avoided the brunt of Hurricane Florence, officials in the northeastern corner of South Carolina expect flooding this week from the storm’s rains and swollen rivers to the north. Whole areas of North Carolina continue to suffer from catastrophic flooding and damage. At least 15 people have died, according to reports.
The WQA continues to offer tips about clean drinking water in the wake of the hurricane on its Crisis Response Blog.
(This story was updated on Sept. 17.)
As the storm continues to impact the Southeast, PCMA wants to get a head start on helping the business event professionals who will face a long road to recovery. The organization is collecting donations that will be distributed to those in need. Learn how you can contribute to the PCMA Education Foundation’s Industry Relief Fund, and stay tuned for more information on how PCMA plans to work with local CVBs to assist in the rebuilding process.